Superficially, If Then, English author Matthew De Abaitua’s 2nd novel, appears to be about the singularity. In scifi lore, that subject revolves around the hypothetical future creation of superintelligent machines. Examples of which have been found in stories like Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and movies like Terminator and Matrix.
But, If Then, is nothing like the above examples. There is no overtly malevolent Artificial Intelligence (AI) and there is no war between man vs machine.
Instead, what we have is the English town of Lewes, where after the collapse of society, survives under the control of the Process, an AI that plays god with the lives of the townsfolk of Lewes.
Our main character is James, the designated bailiff of Lewes, who functions as the servant of the Process, communicating its instructions and enforcing its dictates. At the very beginning of the novel, James encounters an anomaly – an android dressed as a World War I soldier, who is named ‘J. Hector’.
Created by the Process, the purpose of Hector is a mystery to James, his wife Ruth and the townspeople, even as the Lewesians go about their everyday business. But as they are to discover later, Hector is merely the start of a coming event that will change their lives irrevocably.
I found that If Then was a bit of a Trojan Horse. I thoroughly expected a futuristic tale about man’s struggle against the evil machines (‘technological singularity’) but instead for the bulk of the 2nd act, If Then became a story set in WWI (!) as the Process set about re-creating the conditions of the Dardanelles campaign and populating the setting with combatants (coerced into the simulated reality by implants).
Through this plot device, De Abaitua was able to comment not only on the similarity between humans and machines to wage war (for albeit different purposes) but to provide insight into the thinking behind the fact of war itself. The creative decision to use World War I was truly inspired, as it may be argued that WWI was the definitive event of the 20th century and changed the world forever.
Another concept that enthralled me was the idea that perhaps the machines conquered the world when WWI happened! For the rest of modern history, machine-like mathematical logic has only driven an enlightened human race to wage even more wars – with collateral damage becoming acceptable losses – to this very day and age, a century later.
De Abaitua’s prose is a bit of an acquired taste and If Then is by no means a quick read but sticking with the slightly convoluted narrative is certainly rewarding.